Who are the Powhatans?
We only mostly know about the group of 32-34
Algonquian nations recorded by the 17th Century
English who assumed that the name, “Powhatans,” meaning “Dreamers,” was the name for an entire paramountcy. The term was recorded at the time of the1607 Powhatan-Anglo encounter. More importantly, they
belonged to a variety of specifically self-identifying nations with a central governing
center with a "king's house" with surrounding villages. Each nation
had some autonomy, but was allied under the werowance (leader) Wahunsenachaw,
or the second Powhatan.
The name used by the
English was his title as the leader who had created a formidable Paramountcy
which began as a confederacy of eight Algonquian nations in Tidewater, Virginia.
The Powhatan’s ancient political and social history is not fully known except through
archeological interpretations of over 10,000 years of settlement within their
ancestral East Coast territory. Our present knowledge of them comes from slanted 17th century English sources. The term “Powhatan” for all nations under Wahunsenachaw seemed to have been coined by Captain
John Smith while in the employ of the Virginia Company of London, a
group of simplistic venture capitalists. They were money-seekers without the
benefit of the historic knowledge of Indigenous Amerindians who encountered them off the their shores of Attan Akamik (Our Fertile Country).
In 1585, the English impression of the Chesapeake Bay area had
come from Spanish explorers who named that coastline, “Ajacan.”
By 1585, the arriving gold seeking Spanish had been in our ancient Amerindian
Hemisphere for just 93 years. To the Spanish and their European neighbors, they
had thought that the Spanish had “found” a “New World,” a title still
doggedly adhered to for over 500 years in a hemisphere with around 50,000 years
of Asiatic human presence and with some of the planet’s oldest exposed mountain range. Rather than a “New World,” “Asia Extended”
is the concept believed by some who instead see a Western Hemisphere originally inhabited by Asiatic people.
Enter Cockacoeske, the Queen of Pamunkey
Cockacoeske Queen of Pamunkey, whose domain exemplified by 32 tribal circles and Powhatan's emblem behind her, included most of Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC
Queen of Pamunkey crown frontlet (Silver, 1677). Given to
her by Charles II upon the signing of the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation (Williamsburg,
What Cockacoeske had in common with Amerindians
within this Western Hemisphere today is that she was
a survivor. She was from the Opechancanough family line with a traditional
Pamunkey ruling hierarchy of inheritance. Her late grandfather,
Opechancanough, who distrusted the English, was assassinated by them. During
the 30 year period following the third Anglo-Powhatan War, a fragile peace ensued under Opechancanough’s
successors. The theory was that he was succeeded by his son Necotowance who was possibly the father of Totopotomoi. Cockacoeske, then
married Totopotomoi who was her cousin and the werowance (leader) of the
Powhatan Paramountcy. Now pressed into an alliance with the English Crown after Opechancanough’s murder, Totopotomoi was obligated to join their former English enemy for mutual protection as required in the 1645 Anglo-Powhatan treaty.
The Anglo-Powhatan attempt was to expel the encroaching Mahocks and
Nahyssans (also known as Siouan-speaking “Richahhecrians”) who had been forced
out of their own Lake Erie territory by an
expanding economic based Iroquois Nation’s Beaver Wars. Beaver pelts were a
highly prized winter commodity for Amerindians and Europeans. Especially craved by
the English who were at the time importing winter pelts (beaver, martens, wolves, foxes, etc), as clothing items from Russia.
One can evaluate the structure of the Powhatan Paramountcy and its far-reaching influence as well as the opposing English political designs, seventy years after the Indigenous Tsenacommacah or Attan Akamik encounter of 1607. Both Algonquian words describe the territory as a “Densely Inhabited Land” and the second as, "Our Fertile Country." The 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation below encapsulates a window into that violent timeframe. The signatories and their titles provide a view into the local Indigenous power structure. It also reveals the English empire's designs in the expanding Virginia Territory (See the map in NOTES).
What do we know about
The first Anglo-Powhatan War between the Powhatan
Paramountcy and the English began in 1610, three years after the arrival of
Captain John Smith in 1607. It ended with an agreement in 1614. The next peace
treaty after the second Anglo-Powhatan War was in 1646. The third
Anglo-Powhatan War ended in 1677 with the Treaty of Middle Plantation. It is obvious that the
Paramountcy did not want the English in their country.
What we know is that "Cockacoeske was a child of war [and a war weary widow, who was also descended from a martyred ancestor, Opechancanough]. Her circumstances were precarious. She was an astute leader and skillful politician." Her signing of the 1677 treaty below meant that she was a survivor of wars against the English, an attempted assassination on her by Nathaniel Bacon, and the ending of the third Anglo-Powhatan war led by, Opechancanough, the younger brother to Wahunsenachaw, the leader of the expanding Powhatan Paramountcy.
Cockacoeske had a royal personality and did not kowtow to the
English. At her meeting with the General Assembly, Cockacoeske was dressed
regally, and with “grave Courtlike Gestures and a Majestick Air,” she took a
seat at the Council table and refused to speak except through her interpreter
son John West, even though the committee members believed that she understood
She was the last effective Powhatan Paramountcy leader up until her death in
1686 at the age of 46.
Most importantly, as seen above, the 1677 treaty below was the second of its kind after the one signed in 1646 with the English. This Middle Plantation Treaty was made after the breaking of that treaty in 1676 by Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion, where many Pamunkey were killed, imprisoned or enslaved. Having grown up during the most unstable of times, Cockacoeske’s back was up against the wall. Now accustomed to enemy tribes taking advantage of the English destabilizing invasion and its uncontrollable populace, she had experienced the instability caused by both the English subjects and opportunistic Indigenous enemy nations.
At the Assembly, Cockacoeske negotiated for the release of the survivors of Bacon's Rebellion and compensation for Pamunkey losses. Bacon died at 29 years old from the "bloody flux" or dysentery soon after his short-lived rebellion. Some English at that time believed his painful death was caused by a Pamunkey priest induced “Powhatan's revenge."
What is more revealing in the treaty exhibited English paranoia based on their fears of the Indigenous warrior nations within their vicinity. And the extent of Cockacoeske's vast Powhatan Paramountcy's power which included today's states of Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and the District of Columbia. (See the Virginia Territorial map below in NOTES).
The following treaty article's item XXII and the signatories under it, tell you exactly who came under Cockacoeske’s inherited domain.
The Middle Plantation Treaty of 1677
Between Virginia's Indian Head Chiefs and Charles II (The King of Great Britain)
Treaties are supposed to be binding contracts which, in America's case, are not always honored between the United States and its Indigenous people. Typically, English subjects soon broke the 1677 treaty by Bacon’s murderous and destructive acts. Still composed of mostly violent Englishmen, the territory’s invaders continued to steal Powhatan land, denude forests and drive out its Indigenous landowner protectors. The clash between both cultures was based on different concepts of land ownership. The Indigenous belief was that humans were caretakers of Mother Earth, not her masters. The English believed that they had the Christian god-given domain over all of the Earth’s "lesser beings" and even the land itself. Unfortunately, they and their successor’s mishandling of land husbandry has eventually brought the planet to the brink of environmental destruction via global warming.
Yet this 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation in Williamsburg, Virginia, reveals the recognition by the English of the largest Indigenous political government which they had met in North America, the Powhatan Paramountcy. One just has to dissect the agreements below to see who the arriving English recognized as the most important political entities in the vast territory which they viewed in 1609 as "The Virginia Territory." (See map in NOTES.) Other nations within the original Virginia Territory were considered "Petty Kingdoms" by the English who were experienced in European governmental structures.
Charles II of Great Britain, France, Ireland and Virginia after turmoil in England who was brought back to the throne after the beheading of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell’s ensuing civil war (actually, a series of civil wars between 1642-1651).
"With the several Indian Kings and Queens and Assignors and
Subscribers hereunto made and Concluded at the Camp of Middle plantation, the
29th day May, 1677; being the day of the most happy birth and Restoration of
our said Sovereign Lord, and in the XXIX year of his said Majesties
By the Right Honorable Herbert Jeffreys Esquire Governor and
Capt. General of his Majesties Colony of Virginia; Present the Honorable Sir
John Berry, Knight and Morrrison, Esquire his most Sacred
Majesties Commissioners appointed under the great Seale of England for
affairs, And the Honorable Council of State of the said Colony.
Whereas his most Sacred Mantle hath of his own Royal grace
and mere motion entrusted to my care and endeavors the Renewing management and
concluding a good peace with the Neighbor Indians in order whereunto with the
advice and Assistance of the honorable Sir John Berry, Knight and Francis
Morrison, Esquire I have here caused to be drawn up these ensuing Articles and
Overtures for the firm grounding and sure establishment of a good and just
Peace with the said Indians, and that it my be a Secure and homing one founded
upon the strong Pillars of Reciprocal Justice by confirming to them their just
Rights and by Redress of their wrongs and injuries that so the great God who is
god of peace and Lover of Justice may uphold and prosper this out mutual League
and Amity. It is hereby Concluded, consented to and mutually agreed as
[The following is an abbreviation of the 22 agreements
between the "Indians" and the English]
I. That the respective Indian kings and queens acknowledge
their immediate dependency on and their subjugation to the great King of
England, his heirs and successors when they pay tribute to the governor for the
II. That the said kings and queens and their subjects shall
hold their land and property by patent under the seal of his majesties colony,
without any fee gratuity or reward for the same in the manner of his majesty’s
subjects, and paying yearly, three arrows for the same.
III. That all in agreement with us (the English) the Indians
shall have sufficient land on which to plant and shall never have this land
taken from them or disturbed therein so long as they maintain obedience and
subjugation to his majesty, his governor and government and remain in
friendship to the English.
IV. The mutual discontentment, complaints, jealousies
between the English and Indians caused by violent intrusions of various English
into their lands, forcing the Indians to seek revenge by killing English cattle
and hogs, whereby both sides offended and injured each other and caused the
peace to be broken. The late unhappy rebellion caused so much ruin and misery,
that there must be as much as possible the prevention of injuries and evil
consequences. So we conclude and enact that no English shall seat or plant
within three miles of any Indian town. Anyone who encroaches on Indian lands
shall be removed, and proceedings shall be brought against them by the Governor
and the laws enacted by the Assembly.
V. That the said Indians shall be protected, their persons
and goods defended from injuries by the English. The aggrieved Indians should
first address themselves to the governor without rashly taking hostile action
VI. That no Indian king or queen shall be imprisoned without
a special warrant from his majesty’s governor and two of the Council.
That no other Indian shall be imprisoned without a warrant from a Justice
of the Peace and without sufficient cause of commitment.
VII. That the said Indians have and enjoy the convenience of
oystering, fishing and gathering Tuckahoe, wild oats, rushes, pecans, or
anything else for their natural support that is not useful to the English or
from which the English obtain revenues. For any lawful occasion, to always
obtain a certificate from a magistrate, to return the certificate when they are
through with their business, to then go directly home, not to wear or carry any
weapon during the conducting of business, or not to lodge in any Englishman’s
house at night.
VIII. That no foreign Indian comes to an Englishman’s
plantation without a friendly neighborhood Indian in his company and without
the previously mentioned certificate. And that no Indian king refuses to send a
safe conduct with the foreigner upon the lawful occasion. And that no
Indian paint or disguise themselves when they come in.
IX. That all Indian Kings and Queens tributary to the
English having notice of any march of strange Indians near the English quarters
or plantations do forthwith repair to some of the next officers of the militia
and acquaint him of their nation, number and design and which way they bend
X. That if necessary a convenient party be presently sent
out by the next Militia to aide and strengthen and join with Friendly Indians
against any foreign attempt, incursion, or depredation upon the Indian town.
XI. That every Indian fit to bare arms of the neighboring
Nations in peace with us, have such quantity of powder and shot allotted him as
Right Honorable the Governor shall think fit on any occasion, and that such
members of them be ready to go out with our forces upon any march against the
enemy and to Receive such pay for their good services, as shall be thought fit.
XII. That each Indian King and Queen have equal power to
govern their own people, except the Queen of Pamunkey to whom several scattered
Indians do now again own their ancient Subjection and are agreed to come in and
plant themselves under power and government who with her are also hereby
included in this present League and treaty of peace and are to keep and observe
the same towards the said Queen in all things as her subjects as well as
towards the English.
XIII. That no person whatever shall entertain or keep any
Neighbor Indian as Servant or otherwise, but by license of ye Governor and to
be upon the obligation answerable for all injuries and damages by him of them
happen to be done on any English.
XIV. That no English harbor or entertain any vagrant or
Runaway Indian, but convey him home by way of pass from Justice to Justice to
his own town under penalty of paying so much per day for harboring him as by
the Law for entertaining Runaways is Recoverable.
XV. That no Indian of those in Amity with us shall serve for
any longer time than English of the like Ages should serve by act of Assembly,
and shall not be sold as Slaves.
XVI. That every King and Queen in the month of March every
year with some of their great men tender their obedience to the Right Honorable
his Majesties Governor at the place of his residence, whenever it shall be, and
then and there pay the accustomed rent of twenty beaver skins, to the Governor
and also their quit rent aforesaid, in acknowledgement that they hold the
Crowns, and Lands of the great King of England.
XVII. That due care be had and taken that those Indian Kings
and Queens their great men and attendants that
come on any public business to the Right Honorable Governor Council of Assembly
may be accommodated with provisions and houseroom at the public charge. And
that no English Subject shall abuse, revile, hurt or wrong them at any time in word
XVIII. That upon discord or breach of Peace happening to
arise between any of the Indians in amity with the English upon the first
appearance and beginning thereof, and before they open Acts of hostility or war
one against another they shall repair to his Majesties Governor by whose
justice and wisdom it is concluded such difference shall be made upon and
decided, and to whose final determination the said Indian shall Submit and
XIX. That for preventing the frequent mischiefs and mistakes
occasioned by unfaithful and corrupt interpreters , and for more Safety
satisfaction, and advantage both of the Indians and the English, that there be
one of each nation of our neighboring Indians, that already can or become
capable of speaking English, admitted together with those of ye English to
their own interpreters.
XX. That the several Indians concluded in this peace
forthwith restore to the Respective English parents and owners, all such
children servants, and horses, which at any time taken from them, and now
remaining with them ye said Indians, or which they can make discovery of.
XXI. That the trade with the said Indians be continued,
limited, restrained, or laid open, as shall make best for ye peace and quiet in the Country, upon which affair the
Governor will consult with the Council and Assembly, and conclude thereon at
their next meeting.
XXII. That it is further agreed that all Indians and English
in the Province
of Maryland are included
in these Articles of peace, And that neither party shall offend the other
without breach of his Majesties peace.
(Above:) Leaders of the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan, and Nansemond tribes, Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life, and Senators Kaine and Warner in the 2018 Federal Recognition event. (Not shown here is the Fererally rtecognized Pamunkey Nation.)
treaty itself was not honored by arriving fortune-seeking English who were spreading like
locusts, illegally grabbing Indigenous lands and disregarding the tenants of
the 1677 treaty. Originally guided by their priests, the many Powhatan Paramountcy nations/”tribes”,
began to follow their war captains instead. This sparked fear among the English
populace and their colonial government. Nevertheless, the overwhealmed Indigenous
populace under the Powhatan Paramountcy declined in numbers. Its surviving descendants
mostly remained within their ancient territory, forced to make a living by
adapting to the English economy, but keeping some of their traditions alive on
reservations, “Indian Towns,” and similar tribal land holdings. Farming,
hunting and gathering wild foods continued until today’s era. Their pauwau
or powwow became a pan-Indian festival which today is a time to celebrate their survival in territories
surrounded by a mostly uninformed and neglectful mainstream society.
Cockacoeske's niece, Queen Ann (1630-1725) who succeeded her, continued Cockacoeske's tradition of keeping the peace in the colony. However, the
fallout from Cockacoeske’s signing of the 1677 treaty is that after the succession by her niece, Ann, for over 303 years, no
one of their gender has since been elected chief of her nation. During continued colonization, Indigenous numbers had been reduced by European and African introduced pathogens, exploitation, enslavement and medical neglect. This thread of benign neglect towards Indigenous people and their communities has continued today.
Virginia Territorial Map, included in the red line going north and west of the Atlantic Ocean.
(2) Capt. John West, Cockacoeske’s illegitimate son, was around 20 years old when he signed the above 1677 treaty. His father was not Cockacoeske’s deceased husband, werowance Totopotomoi, who had been killed in 1656 in a war against six to seven hundred Indigenous Richahhecrians or Shackoconian warriors. Cockacoeske had John West by an English officer.
(3) As of January 29, 2018 Virginia has seven federally
recognized tribes. Of the 30-odd nations recorded by Capt. John Smith within Virginia proper, many still survive in their
traditional territories. The Tauxenent in Northern Virginia’s Washington, DC suburbs and the city proper, have reorganized under a chief, her assistant chief and council. At this writing, the Mattaponi
is not yet federally recognized. They have the second of the two first reservations in North America.
Other tribes like the Patawomeck and the Cheroenaka (Nottoway)
are only state recognized. Other Virginia
tribes, recorded in 1608, survived, however the volatile state of
Indigenous politics has slowed the movement to recognition. Although Virginia was the first American territory to have
reservations, it took the US
government 411 years to recognize the country's first encountered Native
Americans of the Powhatan Paramountcy.